Tag Archives: animal rights

What happens when an animal rights activist tours an animal research lab?

What would you do if an activist group, whose Facebook wall features the extremist group the ALF, asked to tour your labs? While many people would ignore their request, the University of Guelph (Canada) invited the individual in to tour the facility and answer their questions.

Animal Rights Compliance Facebook page

Animal Rights Compliance Facebook page

A post on the Animal Rights Compliance Facebook page on the 12th September 2015 states that they believe in “The complete abolition vivisection, animal research or drug testing cosmetics, testing of consumer products on animals. Infractions need to be dealt with by fines and minimum incarceration times.” So one might not expect a glowing review on Facebook when the (anonymous) individual reported back.

See transcript of picture at the bottom of this post

See transcript of picture at the bottom of this post

Instead we get an honest account of a research institution which is working hard to improve animal welfare. Huge congratulations to the University of Guelph, and particularly Mary Fowler, the animal facility manager, as they once again show that openness trumps misinformation. The report shows how many people, including activists, are unaware of conditions in labs and can be surprised and impressed when they discover how animals are really treated.

“Mary was very transparent with the University’s policies and I was given a tour of where, currently, only 6 dogs are housed. I was impressed with several issues; The University has extensive dogwalking/caregiving procedures, as well as adoption policies using staff, students and volunteers. It works in co-ordination with the local and area Humane Societies. My understanding is that their treatment models are evolving all the time, with the replacement of live animals with other means whenever possible. Another example is that spay and neutered pets are regularly returned to the Humane Society for adoption. “

A full transcript exists at the bottom of this post for those who cannot see the image. Credit is also due to the unnamed activist who toured the facility and reported back – it’s great to see people be willing to go in with an open mind and report back honestly on what they saw.

Read more about how the University of Guelph gets involved in outreach activities about their animal research through public engagement, internal communication and tours. Also, read their public statement on animal research.

Major advances in the health of humans and animals can be attributed to research using live animals. As an institution, the University of Guelph supports the principle that animals may be used in science only where necessary and where there are no alternative means that will produce the same results to benefit the health of humans and animals.

The University of Guelph has a long history of conducting innovative, multidisciplinary research with partners at other universities, government, and from the private sector. Through partnerships with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food the university plays a key role in research and teaching in the life sciences and agriculture. With a broad range of species, from laboratory rodents to farm animals, fish and wildlife, the University of Guelph has one of Canada’s largest and most versatile animal care and use programs. The University continues to be on the leading edge of animal-based science, the training of highly qualified personnel, and the promotion of welfare and health advancements for animals and humans through research and teaching

Visitors to the open house at the University of Guelph Central Animal Facility learn about research and environmental enrichment over lunch. Credit: Janet Gugan

Visitors to the open house at the University of Guelph Central Animal Facility learn about research and environmental enrichment over lunch. Credit: Janet Gugan

Speaking of Research


If the image from the activist did not come up on your computer, here is a full transcript.

MEETING WITH MARY FOWLER, MANAGER, ANIMAL FACILITIES OFFICE OF RESEARCH, University OF Guelph, Sept.16/15: I had the pleasure of meeting with Ms. Fowler today, at my request, as I was inquiring about the University’s policies on using live animals. esp. dogs in research. Mary was very transparent with the University’s policies and I was given a tour of where, currently, only 6 dogs are housed. I was impressed with several issues; The University has extensive dogwalking/caregiving procedures, as well as adoption policies using staff, students and volunteers. It works in co-ordination with the local and area Humane Societies. My understanding is that their treatment models are evolving all the time, with the replacement of live animals with other means whenever possible. Another example is that spay and neutered pets are regularly returned to the Humane Society for adoption. It is also my understanding that the University does not do such vivisection procedures as cosmetic testing. While we would all like to see all animals cage-free, I would say a greater good appears to being served when animals are treated with respect and given some sort of a life, then adopted out, on average between 6-8 months. I am not sure how else Vets could learn to save animal lives. The point recognized, I think, is that there is a general agreement about needless animal suffering. Thanks again to Mary and her staff.

World Week to Speak Up About Animal Research

Banner at UW-Madison, April 2015.

Banner at UW-Madison, April 2015.

Each April a group of people committed to ending all use of animals for any purpose, including medical and scientific research, orchestrate events for a week they designate World Week for Animals in Laboratories (WWAIL). Among the primary objectives of WWAIL is to generate media coverage via picketing and protests. The event often culminates in World Day for Animals in Laboratories (WDAIL).

WWAIL events are primarily coordinated by Michael Budkie, leader of Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN). Budkie is also known for previous misrepresentation of animal research and its rebuttal by federal agencies. Budkie’s group is funded primarily by the Mary T. and Frank L. Hoffman Foundation, a “Biblically based organization” that believes “our call to mission is to restore God’s original creation intent of a plant based diet (Genesis 1:29-30).”  The  mission of the Hoffman Foundation  is quite clear: “To promote through education the elimination of the use of animals in biomedical research and testing, their use as food, or their use for any and all commercial purposes…

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 18, 2015).

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 18, 2015).

SAEN is like other absolutist groups whose position is that no matter what potential benefit the work may result in, no use of animals is morally justified. This extends across all animals – from fruit-fly to primate. Furthermore, all uses of animals, regardless of whether there are alternatives and regardless of the need, are treated identically. In other words, the use of a mouse in research aimed at new discoveries to treat childhood disease is considered morally equivalent to the use of a cow to produce hamburger, the use of an elephant in a circus, or a mink for a fur coat.

WWAIL protests are focused specifically on research. Thus, the sites for protest tend to be universities and other research institutions where scientists engage in work that produces the new knowledge and discoveries that drive scientific and medical progress to benefit humans, other animals, and the environment. The protests also target individual scientists with the kind of “home demonstrations” we’ve written about before (see more here and here).  In some cases the protests target businesses that support animal research.

Although the WWAIL activities vary some each year, they have a few consistent themes:

  • First, the primary objective appears to be media coverage. In fact, a quick view of the “successes” claimed by the primary organizing group shows that number of news stories is the prize accomplishment.
  • Second, the number of people participating in the activities is typically a few to a dozen.
  • Third, most of the materials used in the protests, social media coverage, and news releases reliably rely on outdated, out-of-context images and little reference to the protestors’ broad agenda and position.

We agree that public consideration of animal research is important. Stimulating serious, thoughtful education efforts and inclusive public dialogue about science, public interests, medical progress, and animal research are critically valuable to public decision-making and, ultimately, to global health. Informed decisions based in accurate information and in an understanding of the complex issues involved in animal research are in the best interest of the public, science, and other animals.

For that reason, many scientists, universities, educators, advocacy groups, and individuals engage in public outreach, education, and dialogue about scientific research with nonhuman animals. Their goal is to provide the public with accurate and thoughtful information about the range of issues that bear on decisions, policies, and practices related to animal research. Among those topics are:  how science works, its process, timescales between discovery and application, why animal research is conducted, in absence of alternatives; who benefits and what would be lost if it did not occur;  how animals in research are cared for, how ethical review occurs, and how regulation and oversight function.

None of these are simple issues, which is why there are many websites, books, articles, and interviews on the topic. WWAIL provides a unique opportunity for the research community to help point people towards these resources for education, dialogue, and serious consideration of animal research.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we have one example of how to do just that.  The website referenced in the banner shown in the photos here (animalresearch.wisc.edu) provides extensive information about animal research.  The site provides facts, interviews, videos, photos, and links for those interested in learning more about why animal studies occur, the role that they play in scientific and medical progress that serve public interests, how research is conducted, its ethical consideration, and the practices, policies, regulation and oversight that govern animal care.

By contrast, we have the signs held by those below participating in a WWAIL sit-in at UW-Madison on Saturday.  Among the signs are photos of animals from other decades and other countries.  For example, note the repetitive use of a picture of Malish, a monkey who was involved in research in Israel in 2001 (not exactly relevant to UW).  We also see quotes by an actor and numbers that do not reflect those from UW-Madison.  None of these are difficult errors or misrepresentations to correct; but they probably won’t be corrected in absence of voices and sources to provide accurate information.

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 2015).

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 2015).

This year, if your university or facility is among those that attract attention during WWAIL,  we ask that you join in the conversation by providing protestors, public, and media your own voice.  Whether it is via banners, websites, or talking with reporters– speak up for science and for public interests in advancing scientific understanding and medical progress. Although it may not matter to those committed to an absolutist agenda, it can matter to those who are interested in building a dialogue based in fact and serious consideration of the complex issues that surround public interests in the future of science, health, and medicine.

Speaking of Research

Students in Rome to rally for Prof Caminiti and future of science in Italy

Tomorrow students at the Sapienza University of Rome – Italy’s largest University – will join their Professors and members of the campaign group Pro-Test Italia outside the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology to show solidarity with Professor Roberto Caminiti, a leading neurophysiologist whose work is being attacked by animal rights extremists.

Tomorrow Pro-Test Italia will return to the streets of Rome, joining students and scientists in support of crucial research.

Tomorrow Pro-Test Italia will return to the streets of Rome, joining students and scientists in support of crucial research.

As with many recent instances of anti-scientific populism in Italy, the campaign against Prof. Caminiti began in earnest with a dishonest broadcast on the Italian tabloid TV news programme Striscia la Notizia which misrepresented the work being done by Pr0f. Caminiti and his colleagues. Prof. Caminiti responded to these false allegations in a video which you can watch here (in Italian with English subtitles)

Following the broadcast the European Animal rights Party (PAE) announced that they would be holding a demonstration Sapienza University of Rome, on February 5 2015, with the declared will to “free” the monkeys that are used by Pr0f. Caminiti and his colleagues. This has sparked concerns that the PAE – and the more extreme animal rights groups who will no doubt accompany them – will attempt to repeat the events of 20th April 2013, when five animal rights activists forced entry into the Pharmacology Department of the University of Milan, stealing hundreds of mice and destroying years of research.

There is, however, a major difference between 2013 and today; today scientists and students are ready to stand up and  defend their research. A group of neurobiology students at the Sapienza University of Rome have organized a counter-demonstration (see this Facebook event for details) tomorrow morning – February 5 – to show support for Prof Caminiti, defend their department, and speak up for the future of scientific research in Italy.

On Monday their stand received a boost when Professor Vincenzo Vullo, Head of the Faculty of Pharmacy and Medicine at Sapienza University of Rome, circulated an email to all scientists, staff and students to express support for Prof. Caminiti, and called on them to join him in defense of the research being undertaken at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology:

Dear colleagues, dear students,

I transmit an open letter by Prof. Roberto Caminiti in defense of the unacceptable smear campaign underway against the scientific activity of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology of our University.

In this regard, I wish to emphasize the scientific value of Prof. Caminiti, an internationally acclaimed researcher whose research has made a significant contribution to the knowledge of the central nervous mechanisms of motor control. I also want to remember especially his human qualities, demonstrated in the constant respect and care with which he always treated animals necessary for his studies.

In expressing my personal solidarity with Prof. Caminiti, I ask for the support of all members of the faculty in defense of the scientific research conducted at the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology of our university.

Vincenzo Vullo”

The email also included a letter addressed to all staff and students from Prof. Caminiti:

Dear Colleagues, dear Students,
On December 18 2014 the TV show “Striscia la Notizia”, using images illegally shot in our animal facilities, broadcast a report with the aim of stirring in the public opinion a campaign condemning the scientific activity of the Neurophysiology of Behaviour Laboratory, in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology of our Atenaeum, where other professors and I carry out our scientific activity, which started in the year1985.
To reply to the accusation of animal cruelty, as an act of absolute transparency of research towards the public, I posted online a reasoned reply, in which it is showed and commented on everything that is performed in our laboratories, thanks to several projects financed by MIUR (Italian Government research funder- Speaking of Research) and the EU, and according to experimental protocols regularly authorized by the Ministry of Health.
On January 23 2015, once again “Striscia la Notizia” returned to the topic, using the images we put online, to claim, with the help of a “flora and fauna” specialist (!) that our studies were useless and cruel, where it is unanimously recognized in the scientific community that our research, together with other work carried out in a select group of international laboratories, lead to the development of brain-computer interface in humans and to the cerebral control of artificial prostetics in patients with paralysis due to neurodegenerative or neurovascular diseases, just like similar researches lead to the development of deep brain stimulation in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
Exploiting the footage broadcasted by “Striscia la Notizia”, the European Animal rights Party (PAE) launched a national demonstration, set to take place on February 5 2015, in front of our Department, with the declared will to “free” the animals that we are working with, and together with the Antivivisection League (LAV) stated that they have submitted a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office in Rome, to open an investigation aimed to the confiscation of the animals, and to open a criminal case against me for animal cruelty.
I call on you, confident that you believe in a country guided by reason, commitment and study, and not driven by obscurantism, just like the “Stamina” case, that you all well know (for more on the Stamina scandal see this recent report -Speaking of Research) . And I ask yo to defend, with the appropriate instruments, the scientific activity and the dignity of a Department of our Atenaeum.
On the morning of February 5, wearing a white lab coat and flower in the buttonhole, I will be in front of my Department to defend and reaffirm that ideal that drove us all to become MDs and researchers.
With best regards,
Roberto Caminiti

We congratulate both faculty and students at Sapienza University of Rome for taking this action in support of science, and wish them, Pro-Test Italia, and all friends of medical progress every success as they stand together in this noble cause.

Speaking of Research

Supporting science: NIH answers PETA

The National Institutes of Health released a statement Monday in support of a well-respected and long-standing primate research program within the NIH intramural program that has been the subject of an ongoing PETA campaign. The focus of the research program, under the direction of Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, is on:

“examining the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates. Primary objectives are to understand how genetic and environmental factors interact to affect cognitive development, as well as develop interventions that can alter developmental trajectories of individuals whose specific genetic and experiential background put them at risk for adverse developmental outcomes. These studies cannot be carried out in humans and require the use of animal studies to carefully separate experience, genetic, and environmental factors. Ultimately, these findings assist researchers in identifying humans most likely to suffer negative effects in at-risk situations and develop behavioral and drug therapies to improve negative outcomes early in life.”

The NIH statement notes the high value of the research program, as assessed by an external board of scientific experts who concluded that the program:

  “has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.”

Cover PNAS monkey pic 2For more about the research, the laboratory, and the animals, see:

NIH’s Response to PETA

NIH’s response to the PETA campaign was thoughtful, thorough, and transparent. The response includes a positive assessment of the value of the research in terms of human health relevance and advances in scientific understanding. It addresses why the research in conducted in monkeys and why it is not possible to use alternative methods, or to conduct the work in humans.

The response also includes a serious, fact-informed consideration of the animals’ welfare. Detailed responses from two of NIH’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees that conducted an extensive evaluation of the research address each element of the concerns raised by PETA and the scientists supporting them (including, Professors John Gluck, Psychology, University of New Mexico; Agustin Fuentes Anthropology, Notre Dame; and Barbara King, Anthropology, William and Mary College; Lawrence Hansen, Pathology, UC-San Diego).

Furthermore, in response to PETA’s complaint, the NIH undertook an exhaustive review via its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). Comprehensive responses to each of the concerns raised by PETA are contained in the reports posted on the NIH website. For those who seek more information, facts, and substantive background to inform their consideration of the conduct of the research and the animals’ welfare, we encourage you to read the NICHD IACUC response posted here: NICHD 12.17.15 ACUC_Memo_2_121914

nih statement 01.28.15

Taken together, NIH’s responses provide a strong demonstration of a high level of care and consideration of animal welfare, as well as the risk and benefit balances that are inherent in the conduct of research with both human and nonhuman animals. The response clearly vindicates Dr. Suomi and provides welcome public acknowledgement by the NIH of the importance of his work.

As welcome as the NIH responses are, they are not, however, responses that will satisfy PETA’s absolutist goal of ending all use of nonhuman animals for any purpose, including animal research, but also food, companionship, entertainment, or other uses.

PETA’s complaint about this and other research included language about animal welfare and about alternatives to animal research in order to achieve the same scientific goals. In reality, however, PETA’s position—like that of all absolutists—is not centrally concerned with either viable alternatives to animal studies or with animal welfare. Rather, the position is that no human use of other animals—any animals, whether photogenic and appealing in popular campaigns, or not—is justified, regardless of the outcome or harms. (See here and here for additional discussion.)

As a result, it would seem that no response NIH could give to PETA would be satisfactory unless it was to end all animal research altogether. Or, in the case of a particular project or lab, the only response satisfactory to PETA or other absolutists would be to end that project, or close that lab. At some level then the question to ask may be about the cost: benefit of such responses.

By contrast to the absolute viewpoint, aspects of ethical consideration of animal research that matter to the majority of the broad public and to the scientific community are evidenced by their instantiation in the laws of a democratic society and  in regulatory and community standards, as well as in individuals’  own assessment. These include concern with significant public health challenges and appreciation for the critical role of basic scientific understanding as the foundation for a broad range of advances that benefit the public, other animals, and the environment. They also include acknowledgement of accomplishments and breakthroughs for human and nonhuman health that are accomplished via animal research. At the same time, they include selection of alternatives where possible, attention to animal’s care and welfare, continuing refinements of procedures in accord with evidence, risk and benefit justification, external oversight, and expert scientific evaluation.

In the case of the current NIH campaign and other campaigns against specific animal research there is a well-known pattern. A group like PETA focuses on a research project—usually one involving  animals such as cats, dogs, or primates that will capture broad public interest. The group then uses the highly responsive system of public institutions and government agencies to obtain information, call for investigation, and launch media campaigns to elicit public concern (and donations). The campaigns are typically based in some form of oversimplification and misrepresentation of the research, treatment of animals, availability of alternatives, or value of the science. In the face of public inquiry or media attention, public research institutions under attack typically offer a response focused on the scientific question, accomplishments, absence of non-animal alternatives, and on the animals’ welfare and oversight.

The problem with that pattern is that it ignores the fact that PETA and others’ campaigns are, in many ways, a reflection of a conflict between fundamentally different philosophical viewpoints. These differences cannot be resolved simply by ensuring scientific advances, careful risk and benefit assessment and balance, or high standards for laboratory animal welfare. All the care, training, accreditation, and external oversight in the world will not address the concerns of individuals or groups who are absolutely opposed to the use of animals in research and who believe that no matter the benefit, use of animals in research cannot be justified. Nor will such approaches address those who believe — wrongly, in most cases — that there are existing alternatives to the use of animals in research. Furthermore, each additional layer of oversight and regulation introduced in an attempt to appease those who cannot be appeased may well add substantial administrative hurdles and costs to the scientific effort without achieving meaningful improvements for animal welfare.

From that perspective, and in light of yet another PETA campaign that has resulted in a significant and extensive response from public agencies, the question becomes whether – and what – might be a better path forward. At present, the same path does not look like one that is productive to improving scientific research. Rather, the prediction would be that PETA and other groups will continue to use the transparency and responsiveness of public research institutions to lend steam to popular opinion campaigns that then target individual scientists, laboratories, and institutions. In turn, a great deal of time and energy will go into investigations, responses, and reports that are likely to yield little in terms of animal welfare, little public benefit, little progress to ending animal research, yet potentially high harm to science. At the very least these responses consume resources that would otherwise be devoted to scientific research or practical enforcement of regulations to protect animal welfare.

As we welcome the NIH’s support for Dr. Suomi we must also ask ourselves a question:  How many more cases like this will there be before the leaders of the scientific community take action to prevent the regulatory system from becoming primarily a tool of the animal rights propaganda machine?

Speaking of Research

UCLA Chancellor on the Importance of Research

Earlier this week, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block sent an email to the entire campus community entitled “A Message on the Importance of Research.”  In the message, Chancellor Block emphasizes the importance of medical research using animals and expresses support and admiration to all members of the UCLA family engaged in this work.  Below is the text of the email.



UCLA Chancellor Gene Block

To the Campus Community:

Last week, the Daily Bruin published an important and compelling column by a member of our faculty, psychology and psychiatry professor David Jentsch. In it, Professor Jentsch rightfully encourages our students to use their knowledge and skills for the betterment of our world, which includes engaging in important scientific research.

For many years, Professor Jentsch has conducted essential research aimed at understanding brain chemistry in order to treat the root causes of addiction, a disease that destroys lives and families. This work has required responsible animal research.

I think it’s important that everyone take the time to read this column. As someone who has continued his lifesaving work despite being a target of violence and harassment by animal rights activists for many years, Professor Jentsch offers a critical and unique voice on this subject. Unfortunately, he has not been the only faculty member targeted by activists. Several of our other faculty members who engage in animal research have been similarly targeted and yet have bravely persevered despite these shameless tactics. Our campus has worked through the legal system and with law enforcement to protect our researchers, and I want to use this occasion to make it clear that all members of the UCLA community who contribute to scientific and medical progress continue to have our support, respect and admiration.Please always remember that animal research is closely monitored and subject to multiple stringent federal laws and university regulations. As Professor Jentsch writes, “Be a proud scientist… I stand with you.”As UCLA’s chancellor, I stand with him and all those who are dedicated to improving health and saving lives.

Gene D. Block

A Philosopher’s Dream

A moral philosopher had the following dream:

First Darwin appeared, and the philosopher said to him, “Could you give me a fifteen-minute capsule sketch for your support of medical research using animals?”

To the philosopher’s surprise, Darwin gave him an excellent exposition in which he compressed an enormous amount of material into a mere fifteen minutes,  ending with a warning to the philosopher that “I know that physiology cannot possibly progress except by means of experiments on living animals, and I feel the deepest conviction that he who retards the progress of physiology commits a crime against mankind. “ But then the philosopher raised a certain objection which Darwin couldn’t answer. Confused, Darwin scratched his head and disappeared.

Then Albert Sabin appeared.  He gave another detailed account of the importance of the work to the development of the Polio vaccine and concluded that “without the use of animals and of human beings, it would have been impossible to acquire the important knowledge needed to prevent much suffering and premature death not only among humans but also among animals.”  The same thing happened again, and the philosophers’ objection to Sabin was the same as his objection to Darwin. Sabin also couldn’t answer it at all, scratched his head and disappeared.


Then all the famous medical heroes of the past century paraded one-by-one to defend the work, and our philosopher refuted every single one with the same, singular objection.

After the last scientist vanished, our philosopher said to himself, “I know I’m asleep and dreaming all this. Yet I’ve found a universal refutation for all justifications of animal  research! Tomorrow when I wake up, I will probably have forgotten it, and the world will really miss something!”

With an iron effort, the philosopher forced himself to wake up, rush over to his desk, and write down his refutation. Then he jumped back into bed with a sigh of relief.

The next morning when he awoke, he went over to the desk to see what he had written.

It was,

“That’s what you say, but I am deeply skeptical.”


Jeffrey Kahn’s Odd Views on Animal Research

Professor Jeffrey Kahn visited UW Madison to discuss the use of monkeys in medical research.

He is the Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy and the Deputy Director for Policy and Administration at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

Professor Kahn has participated in numerous federal panels and chaired the influential Institute of Medicine (IoM) committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which recommended that the NIH phase out most biomedical research on chimpanzees.

Because he is respected and listened to by those in charge of making policy decisions on matters of important medical research and public health issues, his talk at UW Madison drew much attention.

During his comments Prof. Kahn raised several objections about how animal research is regulated in the United States that deserve closer scrutiny.

Unfair application of the principles of utilitarian philosophy

Professor Kahn objected to justifying research based on utilitarianism on the grounds that it is unfair to consistently harm one group (non-human animals) for the benefit of another (humans).

However, the notion that pure utilitarianism forms the basis for an ethical defense of biomedical research is incorrect.

For example, a pure utilitarian view would also call for doing invasive experiments in mentally disabled human beings whose cognitive capabilities are comparable to those of animals used in research, or demand we forcefully harvest the organs of a potential human donor to save the lives of several others.

Of course, we don’t do any of these things. So it was perplexing to hear him state that utilitarianism is “how the system is set up.” 

No, it is definitely not.

Medical research with human and non-human animals is not based on a pure, utilitarian view.  Instead, it is partly based on a graded moral status perspective that posits we owe moral consideration to all living beings, but not to the same degree that we owe consideration to the lives of fellow humans. It is also partly based in our mutual recognition of equal, basic rights for all members of the human family.

These ethical considerations are embedded in federal regulations and NIH guidelines that call for minimizing the number of animal subjects used in any one study, the amount of suffering involved, and require the use the “lowest” species that can be expected to yield meaningful scientific answers.  It is also reflected in specific federal programs aimed at developing alternatives to animal use and, of course, in protections for human subjects.

It is true that NIH has never made explicit the ethical and philosophical principles underlying its research.  Nevertheless, the ethical principles etched in these regulations should be clear to anyone who spend the time to become familiar with them.

A misguided notion of scientific necessity

Professor Kahn views the “scientific necessity” of the work as inextricably linked to the ethics. His views are aligned with the conclusions of the panel that he chaired on chimpanzee research.  Within this framework a project would be morally justified only if all the following three conditions were met:

  1. No suitable alternative is available
  2. The work cannot be performed ethically on human subjects
  3. The work is required in order to accelerate the prevention, control and treatment of life-threatening or debilitating diseases

A large class of studies readily meet the first two requirements. When we seek information about the cellular and molecular mechanisms in a living organism, the technologies available to us at the present are invasive, and the work cannot be performed ethically in human subjects. If we could observe and manipulate molecular pathways and cells in living humans without jeopardizing their well being, then the work would be done in humans. But we don’t yet have such tools. No computer simulation, no in-vitro system, no MRI, no organs-on-a-chip currently available, provide an adequate alternative to animal studies.

The crux of the matter then boils down to the third condition, and therein lies the rub. When you are talking about the process of scientific discovery, this third condition is meaningless when applied to individual scientific projects. Science, as Professor Kahn himself points out, is not necessarily a predictable linear path from point A to point B, because it involves the exploration of the unknown. Science cannot promise that any one experiment can lead to a cure, nor can researchers know ahead of time which specific experiment or line of research will lead to a breakthrough. In Professor Kahn’s own words, “we call it research because we don’t know what the answer is.”  Why does he not realize that demanding a specific outcome in advance is out of the question?  One can only evaluate outcomes in retrospect, as Peter Singer has done offering in his approval for monkey studies in Parkinson’s research. Unfortunately, scientists on NIH study sections do not have the luxury of an oracle that can guide their decisions.

Instead, researchers understand that without animal studies we will not be able to develop new therapies and cures. Our expert scientific opinion is that were we to suspend animal research, most fields of biomedical research would come to a full stop. Meanwhile, patients and their families would pay the price of more human suffering.

Thus, the ethical question should be reframed as not whether one individual study is required but, in the case at the heart of this debate, whether the use of animal models is required to understand the molecular pathways underlying mental disorders so that we can  develop new treatments and cures for them.  Or more generally, if animals are required at all to advance medical knowledge and human health.  The scientific consensus in this matter, as indicated by a recent Nature magazine poll,  is overwhelming:


Bonus points should go to UW Professor Eric Sandgren who was nevertheless able to use Professor Kahn’s framework to explain, point by point, why he feels the studies under discussion can be justified. You may agree or disagree with his justification, but you cannot say he did not offer one. In contrast, Professor Kahn simply stated that he was “deeply skeptical” of the necessity of the work, despite acknowledging a lack of familiarity with the details of the study, nor bothering to explain the rationale for this view.

Given that the research at the center of this debate is aimed directly at anxiety disorders, a specific neurological condition that affects millions of humans, one might safely assume that Professor Kahn would express even graver doubts about basic research in animal subjects. He would have likely have rejected outright the research on olfactory cells that eventually allowed paralyzed people (and dogs) to walk again, among numerous advances in knowledge that have led to medical breakthroughs.

Professor Kahn ought to be reminded that the mission of the NIH is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability,” and try to understand better the inherent uncertainty and necessity of scientific research.

Do IACUCs and NIH study sections fail to evaluate scientific necessity?

Given his misguided view of necessity, it should not be surprising Professor Kahn believes that neither IACUCs nor NIH study sections are able to assess the scientific need for specific studies. He harshly criticized such committees for taking the claims of any one proposal at “face value.

That is a very strong statement… and a decidedly incorrect one, too.

First, the overall scientific direction of medical research in the country is established by our medical and scientific leadership. In the neurosciences, scientists are guided in their research by NIH’s Neuroscience Blueprint. Among the important scientific directions relevant to this particular discussion—ones that Professor Kahn should have known about—were the Blueprint Neurotherapeutics Network (to advance the development of new drugs for nervous system disorders) and the Blueprint Non-Human Primate Brain Atlas (to provide comprehensive data on gene expression in the rhesus macaque brain , from birth to four years old). Such work is expected to aid research on human brain development and its disorders.

Second, NIH study sections diligently assess proposals with an eye to which studies stand a better chance of advancing our knowledge of function and disease and therefore may have the greatest potential to lead to new cures or fundamentally advancing a field of study. In making their assessments, scientists who participate in study sections use their expertise to assess which research directions and pilot data look most promising. There is never a guarantee that any one study will produce a breakthrough. If there is any one premise it is that animal research has led to numerous advancements in knowledge and medicine that has benefited human and non-human animals alike. This is not taken at face value, rather, it is an indisputable fact of medical history.

Third, once the scientific merit of a proposal has been established, IACUCs provide an additional layer of local scrutiny and compliance oversight. It is perfectly reasonable for IACUCs to ensure the work at the institution maximizes the welfare of the animal subjects in each study, and NIH requires such an assurance for institutions that receive federal funding. (For the small minority of projects that have not yet received NIH review, the IACUCs seek local expertise to evaluate the scientific merit of the study.)

Is funding “unnecessary” research a waste of resources?

Another miscalculation derived from Professor Kahn’s flawed view of “necessity” is the claim that if research is “unnecessary” according to his definition, then it is also unethical, especially considering the limited funding resources we have available at the moment.

It is perfectly legitimate for a society to assess how it distributes its resources, but in doing so the entire budget ought to be considered.

One may ask, for example, how Professor Kahn feels about resources spent on drones for the military, the Hubble telescope, unmanned trips to Mars, funding for theoretical physics, game theory, or the Arts.

Or, more to the point, one could ask for a more detailed justification of why society should spend its resources on philosophers and bioethicists?

Should society prioritize the support of bioethics over the development of a vaccine for Ebola or a cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s?

Which is one more crucial to our social welfare and which is more “unnecessary”?

Who will direct medical research?

Scientists must participate more in public life because social policies need to be decided on the basis of rational grounds and facts. These include important issues ranging from climate change, to the goals of the space program, to the protection of endangered species, to the use of embryonic stem cells or animals in biomedical research.

When scientifically inaccurate statements emanate from someone who has demonstrable influence on public policy decisions, scientists have a duty to speak up and correct the mistakes.

Animal research poses a legitimate moral dilemma. Decisions to pursue different lines of research that are perceived as controversial — be it research involving animals subjects or embryonic stem cells — cannot be assessed fairly without the active participation of scientists, physicians, patients and their families, because all are stakeholders in the work.

Unless these stakeholders get involved in such debates, we may find that their interests are not taken into account when the future direction of medical research is determined.

Dario Ringach